Over at Mad Genius Club my friend (is that what he is? It would seem our relationship would be much closer, we’d been sitting with the murky water of publishing side by side in the same trench for 15 years now. We’ve seen each other’s kids grow up from a distance, we’ve shared the victories (few) and the kicks in the teeth (many) and talked each other out of the extreme dismals so many times. You’d think he’d be more a brother-at-arms, a co-combatant, something closer than the much-abused word “friend.”) talks about realistic fiction and how to create the illusion of reality in fiction.
[One of my favorite such moments, in a biography of Christopher Marlowe came when he was arrested — probably while working a sting for the crown — for “uttering” false coin. The author dropped the “this or that might have been going on, or this or the other thing might be true” and said “so there he was late at night, probably in wholly inappropriate clothing, likely dying for a smoke, and repeating that he must talk to Walsingham, but he also let slip, recorded as part of arrest that he didn’t see why the Queen had the right to coin, and he shouldn’t, since he was as good as her.” It gave me suddenly the human side, and how young the man was and what I would call “reckless Libertarian” in an age that had no word for it. Suddenly it made the creature of shadows and spying, double and probably triple agent for merciless powers real, and flawed and damnably young.]
See, even “realistic” non-fiction is still fiction, because reality is boring, incoherent, often intrusive at the worst possible moments, and full of coincidences, and just plain not very good storytelling.
The funny thing is that even non-fiction falls under that “realistic fiction” thing. You can’t actually read the life of Julius Caesar or Catherine Howard, or Joan of Arc. You read a narrative of it, which, in the hands of a skilled writer, can give you an impression of who that person really was, like… like when you meet a friend and catch up on what has happened the last ten years.
What you get in that case is a highly edited biography. There will be some pivotal moments the friend won’t even tell you, himself. You know, he’ll say, “And I decided I really was not suited to the insurance business.” He won’t say, “It was that morning, I had a headache and was prone to my cyclical depression, and then I had to deny three claims, and I said bugger it all.” Or he might, but it’s not guaranteed. He might no longer remember exactly what made the luster go from the job, forever.
In the same way, your own image of your own life is sort of that edited biography. I get a lot of “uh, what was I thinking?” when I open long-packed boxes, particularly if they belong to the “apnea years” when dan had apnea so bad neither of us was sleeping. Or perhaps to the years when the kids were tiny, and we were either low on sleep or ill because we lived low on sleep.
I mean there are things I know how to do: like, oh, make a bed, or cook. And you can say “you can do it in your sleep” and you kind of can, except you don’t do it the same. Sometimes I find notes for novels and go “what the actual heck, surely by 2007 I knew a long, sustained whine wasn’t a novel.” But either I didn’t, or at the time I was depressed/under the gun/too tired to realize what I had weren’t note for a novel but various walls to drop on a character.
If I ever do anything to merit having my biography written, it amuses me that so much of the last 10 years will be subsumed in something like “And then Sarah started getting seriously hypo-thyroidal and it affected her functioning.” Maybe people will mind marks of the illness in my books. Heaven knows they are probably there, as more and more, with my memory/verbal ability failing, it felt like all my energy was going towards hiding how badly things were going.
OTOH maybe that part will be lost, and they’ll attribute the hypothyroidism issues to something else, growing pains or whatever.
Even I can no longer remember everything that was going on when.
Yesterday was a very good day in some ways, but completely lost to writing. In any biography it would be completely passed over.
Those state of the writer updates I do now and then is just enough to catch you up on what’s been going on, but not in anyway detailed.
I was thinking of the excellent William Patterson biography of Heinlein, a man who changed markedly through his life, and he gives us the times the man changed, and how, and sort of marks the places, but the hundred different ways he changed, and how he grew to be who he was.
Right now my life is working something like this: work like mad, finish work, get very ill with auto-immune, come back to life and work like mad to finish work.
My son tells me it’s not that I’m doing something wrong, and no losing weight will probably not make me get fewer of these episodes (though I am still trying to lose weight, or at least not gain) and no, exercise won’t help that much, except maybe for reducing my stress levels. He says auto-immune syndrome (which I passed on to both boys) naturally gets worse with age, and whatever I die of eventually it will probably be because I lost that particular fight.
But none of this matters, in the long run, in my bio, just like last night’s dinner with friends won’t matter. In the end it’s “the work of our lives” that matters.
Sure in my case that’s writing, to an extent. At leas that was the realization that hit me like something very sharp when I was in the hospital dying of what would later be diagnosed as intercellular pneumonia, and I realized that despite everything I’d done so far, the one thing weighing on me was all the worlds that would die with me, in my mind. And that I was supposed to write, which I did, from then on, in a serious way, though it took me four years to sell a novel.
So I know writing is part of what I’ll regret not doing when my personal Ragnarok draws near.
The other part I hope is raising the kids to where they can fly on their own, and making whatever genetic contribution matters in the long run (hopefully not the curse of auto-immune.)
But it is not for us to make the decision of what will matter. I wonder if Shakespeare would be shocked to know what a contribution he made to Western civilization when I’m sure his goal was pushing his children another rung up the social ladder of his time.
We just do what we can with our limited vision at that moment, but in the end all the stories and summarizing of life makes no difference, and it’s what we accomplished that stands and falls on its own, long after us.
All we can do is do the best we can and hope that it’s all for the best. Everyday.